Seeds of Earth by Mike Cobley
Humanity’s Fire, Book 1
Published by Orbit UK, March 2009 (ARC copy received)
Review by Mark Yon
Mike has in the past been known for his Shadowkings trilogy, a dark fantasy series with the first book, Shadowkings, published in 2001. Though well-liked by readers and critics, publishing was a little erratic and the series unjustly disappeared. The last, Shadowmasques, was published in 2005.
Four years later, Mike’s back, not with a Fantasy but with an SF series.
And I must emphasise series here. For it is clear pretty much from the outset that we’re in for the long haul here. Though the book is standalone, this first book is clearly the overture to a great deal of clever lengthy thinking.
As you might expect from this, therefore, the story is multi-stranded, involving a good range of characters with a variety of worlds and biomes. The chapters revolve around a set of key characters. Greg Cameron is the leader of the Human group on the world of Darien, made up mainly of Scots, Russians and Scandinavians. Chel is his friend, the indigenous alien of the Warrior Uvovo. Catriona is one of the colonies archaeologists and (conveniently) an ‘ex’ of Greg’s. On the opposing side we have Robert Horst, a diplomat for the Earthsphere, and his AI construct, Harry, rather like a future i-phone. Robert’s occupation seems to be a genuine wish to help all, though he is clearly a conduit between two different cultures.
So: this is the sort of thing that Space Opera readers love. We’ve got spaceships and a broad history, shown through the viewpoints of multi-person perspectives, linked together in a way that Heinlein would’ve been proud of. There’s a nicely developing backstory for those who like their stories to have a contextual background, drip-fed (though at times info-dumped) throughout the novel as current events unfold. The aliens are nicely alien, with lots of different races and big mysterious secrets in the Uvovo’s history, when they were hidden on the forest-covered moon of Darien, which are revealed through the novel.
What I found most surprising when finishing the novel was that its style is, perhaps deliberately, unashamedly older than I expected. My initial reaction was that in terms of style it wouldn’t be too out of place in, say, Analog magazine in the 1990’s. There are touches of Iain M Banks’s Culture here, Peter Hamilton’s Confederation and Neal Asher’s Polity, but what struck the most was how the multi-person narratives and plot progression reminded me of older American writers, such as Allen M. Steele, Vernor Vinge and John Ringo.
Though the style is traditional, the issues raised within the content of the novel are not. Unlike that older writing, the themes are written from a 21st century perspective. This creates some nice twists. Whereas once upon a time the arrival of outsiders from the homeworld may’ve been greeted with open arms, here they are actually invaders from ‘bad ol’ Earth’, now part of the Sendruka Hegemony, come to exploit the native alien Uvovo species and the agrarian human refugee colonists, originally living in peaceful co-existence on the planet of Darien. Think ‘corporate takeover’ rather than social enhancement, or possibly even relate the events to current proceedings in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The themes don’t just end there. The story further involves an examination of the issues of colonialism, international (or rather, intergalactic) politics, terrorism and international inter-relationships, something which an older novel might not. The story is complicated further when other races outside of the Hegemony hear of the colony’s discovery. There is a gold-rush style migration to the outpost, some wishing to give support to the colony in defending itself from the enemy, others seeing opportunities to enhance their position in the complicated social structure that has evolved in the last 150 years since the colonists left Earth.
Much of the main plot henceforward deals with the interactions between these groups, some of which are surprising, some are not. The ending ties most things together whilst leaving details open for the next book in the series, The Orphaned Worlds, due 2010.
In summary, this is a great hunky juggernaut of a Space Opera novel. It is a confident book, not entirely without its flaws, but one that should be greeted with enthusiasm by fans of Peter F Hamilton and Iain M Banks.
Mark Yon, January 2009.